3 Priorities For Securely Transitioning to Remote Plant Operations

By Bill Moore, Founder and CEO of XONA

Few industries are undergoing a digital transformation as quickly or as thoroughly as the energy sector. Complex market forces and unique challenges have converged to create an environment where new digital solutions are required to produce greater efficiencies, better safety standards, and a more compelling work environment.

A critical part of this change is a transition to a remote environment, which has only accelerated in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. A return to in-person, on-site work as the de-facto work arrangement is unlikely to return anytime soon.

Instead, it’s increasingly clear that the new normal will consist of on-site, remote, and distributed teams. To accommodate this environment, power producers will need to scale their remote operations capacity quickly.

The Benefits of Remote Operations Capacity

Perhaps most obviously, remote operations capacity addresses a clear desire from workers to have more flexibility in their workplace. This is both a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a long-developing trend. Within the energy industry, 70% of employees indicate that they want to continue working remotely after the pandemic. At the same time, companies will bolster their ability to ensure productivity from a mobile workforce while enabling sharable expertise and services.

At the same time, distributed workers are empowered like never before, as remote operations capacity allows them to:

  • Centrally monitor plant operations
  • Diagnose and troubleshoot alarms and issues
  • Instruct, guide, and dispatch on-site personnel
  • Remotely operate, startup, and shutdown.

While remote operations capacity is often associated with off-site work, it also bolsters the abilities of on-site workers. For example, these employees can:

  • Collaborate with remote staff and experts
  • Increase mobile staff effectiveness and flexibility
  • Improve employee health and safety
  • Operate reliability with reduced staffing.

Remote operations capacity addresses many other important issues for the industry. It empowers an emerging, multi-generational workforce, updates cybersecurity standards for the digital age, and allows energy producers to remain agile during catastrophic events (like a global pandemic).

Priorities That Matter Most

Power generators are moving in the right direction by adopting technologies that enable remote or mobile control procedures that ensure business continuity and staffing flexibility. Ensuring a secure, effective transition is top-of-mind for many leaders. Failure in this regard could have long-term implications for companies’ bottom lines and their customers’ ability to receive reliable, affordable services. To achieve this, leaders should focus on three priorities:

Simplicity. Technological advancement is only forward-thinking if people can harness these capabilities to improve upon existing infrastructures. Companies are making this transition during an already-disruptive time, so they should strive to implement software that is simple to install, easy-to-use, and incredibly powerful.

Cybersecurity. Today, most power plants are equipped with next-generation firewall (NFGW) products, a defensive standard for preventing bad actors from accessing and meddling with these critical networks. These services allow for powerful functions like sandboxing, application-level inspection, and intrusion prevention. However, this technology isn’t designed for remote access, which is why a new “connection broker,” a zero-trust OT platform, is helpful. It allows users to authenticate with any standard browser on their PC or tablet. Users can simply log onto the broker using an encrypted HTTPS protocol and are screened through a multi-factor authentication process to verify their identity. This standard ensures that power producers are cyber secure without limiting their employees’ ability to effectively operate off-site.

Immediacy: Undoubtedly, the trend toward remote work and the need for remote operations capacity is a long-term reality that will reshape the industry in its image. It’s also an immediate concern. Not only are the cost-saving efficiencies needed to compete in an already troubled energy market, but keeping workers safe and productive during the pandemic is a top priority. Embracing an off-the-shelf software solution means not having to build something from the ground up, which is important when time is of the essence.

Conclusion

Secure remote operations enhance the flexibility, capability, and responsiveness of utilities to effectively meet this transformative moment by bringing together on-site and remote operators to increase operational efficiency and public safety. Moving forward, whatever the need, the solutions must be flexible and adaptable, able to exist as a temporary band-aid solution and as a long-term, comprehensive digital transformation.

The energy sector is undoubtedly an industry in transition, and companies that make adjustments will be poised to flourish moving forward while those that stand still will struggle to keep up.